Student Becomes the Professor - Y Magazine
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Student Becomes the Professor

When her professor passed away, a TA refused to let the course fail.

Exhausted, Natalie P. Newton (’16) walked home from campus on a blustery February evening, not knowing what she’d eat when she got home. She hadn’t been grocery shopping in weeks—even laundry had become an only-when-absolutely-necessary undertaking. So when she found a plate of brownies and an encouraging note from a neighbor on her front porch, she says, “I just cried. And that was all I ate for the next few days.”

Newton had set up what she considered a manageable winter semester: the nutritional-science major would be finishing med-school prereqs, studying for the MCAT, volunteering at the Provo Temple and for three different nonprofits, and working as a TA for N. Paul Johnston’s (BA ’66) international-nutrition class.

But two weeks into the semester, when Johnston passed away unexpectedly, Newton’s load became less manageable. First came shock: “I felt like I had lost my grandpa,” says Newton, who was entering her fourth semester as Johnston’s TA. Then came determination: “I didn’t want the class to be canceled, and I knew I could teach it.”

Growing up, Newton’s parents gave her a taste for things international: her father spoke only Spanish at home, and they went as a family on service trips abroad. Having traveled to 37 countries, she’s long been passionate about different cultures, and after taking Johnston’s international-nutrition class in 2013, she has gravitated especially to nutrition-related issues around the world—what people eat, where their diets are lacking, and how they can best supplement with regional food to get the nutrients they need.

As part of Johnston’s class, the 33 registered students were slated to compile detailed nutritional analyses and dietary plans for specific people in Guatemala, Malawi, and the Philippines, and Newton wanted to ensure those projects were completed. So she made her case to the department leadership. Not only did she have international experience, but as Johnston’s TA, she had lectured, helped design class projects, and wrote and graded tests.

“She had a degree of humility,” says nutrition, dietetics, and food science professor Lora Beth Brown (EdD ’82), who agreed to act as a faculty supervisor for the class, “but she was confident and capable.”

So Newton added teaching to her winter load, ditched any hope of a social life, and started staying up until 2 a.m. to prep, waking by 6. “I was a walking zombie,” she says.

Cassidy J. Lang (’16), Newton’s TA, recounts chatting with Newton one day after class. “She broke down—so stressed—and I realized then how much she cared and how much she was sacrificing to make the class work.”

When she was stressed, her students didn’t see it. Jasmine Kaspar Eaton (’16) says Newton was a natural teacher, passionate about the material and engaging in her questions and discussions. And her devotion extended far beyond class: “Anytime we needed help—literally—she made herself available,” says Eaton. “I remember e-mailing her at 1 in the morning, and she got back to me in 10 minutes.”

Eaton nominated Newton for a 2015 BYUSA Brigham Award, designed to recognize students, faculty, or staff for their significant commitment and service at BYU or elsewhere. When she was one of five people chosen to receive the award, Newton says, “I was just so grateful those sacrifices didn’t go unnoticed.”

Students weren’t the only beneficiaries of her sacrifices: international families got the nutritional analyses they had been counting on. For a 3-year-old Filipino child, one student recommended malunggay, or leaves from a moringa tree, to provide nutrients including iron and vitamins A and C. For a 4-year-old Guatemalan boy short on iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C, another student recommended beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. Malawian families received reports breaking down their daily nutritional needs. To help the families meet those needs, students suggested what and how many food-producing animals they should own, what feed they’d need for those animals, what crops they should plant, and how much of their land should be devoted to each crop.

Newton, who hopes to be involved in international medicine one day, calls her semester teaching “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” But, she adds, “in hindsight, I know it helped prepare me for the rigors ahead. My ability to handle things and see things from a different perspective changed so much.”